The Walt Disney Co. has been silent this past week over the Florida Legislature's decision to repeal a special taxing district that allows the company to self-govern its theme-park area.
That silence leaves much unknown about how Disney will respond, and what its next steps will be. Under the legislation, the company's self-governed districts would be dissolved by June 2023. Under current law, Disney was able to collect collect taxes, follow its own building codes and provide emergency services for its six water and theme parks and its resorts.
The Legislature's action came in response to Disney criticism over the “Parental Rights in Education Act" that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in March. The measure — which critics term the "Don't Say Gay" bill — includes provisions that limit instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3.
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The company responded to the fallout from Disney employees and stockholders — both in an open letter to employees and during the company's annual stockholders' meeting. DeSantis — and lawmakers took notice.
Here's what we know:
What was Disney's initial approach?
Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek has taken criticism in recent months from some employees and shareholders over what his critics felt was Disney's muted response in opposing the Parental Rights in Education Act.
Chapek last month sent a message addressed to Disney employees — "but especially our LGBTQ+ community" — about the legislation.
"Speaking to you, reading your messages and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was," Chapek said. "It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights, and I let you down. I am sorry. We need to use our influence to promote that good by telling inclusive stories, but also by standing up for the rights of all."
Why was Disney initially silent in its opposition to the legislation?
Chapek read a statement at the company's annual stockholders' meeting on March 9 that explaining that tactic.
"We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it, because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle," Chapek told stockholders. "And we were hopeful that our long-standing relationships with those lawmakers would enable us to achieve a better outcome. But despite weeks of effort, we were ultimately unsuccessful. Certainly, the outcome in Florida was not what many of us were hoping for, especially our LGBTQ+ employees."
How did Disney stockholders react?
Some stockholders on both sides of the issue were not pleased with the company's efforts — and expressed those views during the shareholder question-and-answer portion of the meeting.
One stockholder questioned why Chapek and a group of LGBTQ+ employees were planning to meet with DeSantis, when the governor's views were clear on the legislation.
Another read into the meeting record comments from his daughter — a Disney employee — who felt the company did not do enough to fight the legislation; should not have donated to politicians who supported the bill; and does not have enough of an LGBTQ+ representation in its mainstream Disney shows and movies. She termed Disney's initial efforts on the legislation "beyond disappointing."
In contrast, another stockholder complained to Chapek that "your recent Magical Pride Days and your upcoming LGBTQ Pride March this year is a blatant attempt at indoctrinating children and attendees towards a certain political ideology." He also expressed concern that transgender themes are getting into Disney creative content.
"My question to you today is: Would it not be beneficial both to you and the millions of Disney lovers around the world to ditch the politicization and gender ideology from your content aimed at children, and instead try to win back the trust of families by sliding away from politics altogether? And reverting back to the magic and innocence that has been the founding motive for its success?"
What did Disney CEO Bob Chapek say about those criticisms?
"I think all the participants in today's call can see how difficult it is to try to thread the needle between the extreme polarization of political viewpoints we have as shareholders," he told shareholders. "Certainly, our shareholders follow the general distribution of our audience in general and America and the globe, in terms of having different points of view."
So what does Disney plan to do now?
Chapek has announced a multifaceted approach to addressing the issues. Among its efforts, Disney is taking action to combat the spread of legislation like the Parental Rights in Education Act approved by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by DeSantis.
Chapek said Disney is:
Increasing its support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states, including signing the Human Rights Campaign's statement opposing such legislative efforts.
Pledging $5 million to organizations working to protect LGBTQ+ rights.
Working to create "a new framework for our political giving that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values."
Halting political donations in Florida, pending this review.
How is Disney trying to unify its customers?
Chapek said Disney likes "to celebrate those different points of view, but, really, what we want Disney to be is a place where people can come together and place their differences aside, and it's my goal to make sure that that continues to be the case, where Disney is a unifying force, not a divisive force. My opinion is that when someone walks down Main Street and comes in the gates of our parks, they put their differences aside, and they look at what they have as a shared belief — a shared belief of Disney magic, hopes, dreams and imagination and bringing people together."
What does Chapek think about Disney's relations with the LGBTQ+ community?
"We stand with our LGBTQ+ community going forward, and will continue to make an impact," Chapek said at the shareholder meeting.
"I truly believe we are an infinitely better and stronger company because of our LGBTQ+ community." Chapek told employees in his email. "I missed the mark in this case, but am an ally you can count on — and I will be an outspoken champion for the protections, visibility and opportunity you deserve."
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Is Disney leaving Florida amid DeSantis feud over Don't Say Gay law